Opinion: Pandemic stress and exhaustion are taking a toll on our farms

Everyone is feeling worn down but on farms, that ups the risk of an accident occurring

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January is a weird month.

It’s an optimistic time, with a new year bringing resolutions and a sincere hope for life to be better and brighter.

But it’s also a dark and slow month on the Canadian Prairies — especially in the rural areas, on the often quieter farms so many of us call home. This year, the slow months will be even slower, as we find ourselves in the midst of another round of COVID-19 shutdowns that have impacted who we see and how we feel.

Farmers are always at higher risk for health and safety incidents but now we need to add mental health to this list too.

So now, as we are all contemplating our plans for the year, I am urging our rural communities to make farmer health and farm safety a top priority this year, because despite what some of us believe, we are more at risk now than ever before.

Yes, in a longer-term scope, the amount of farm accidents and deaths are still significant.

But the numbers are still significant enough to merit our attention and response. In 2019 there were still 16 deaths in Alberta resulting from farm accidents — which is 16 too many.

Yes, our industry has become better at creating, regulating and enforcing better safety systems.

But the fact remains that we work in hazardous environments, with large-scale and complicated equipment, often by ourselves or with few others. We are often self-directed, meaning less stringent safety guidelines or structures in place. Our work days are long and we get tired, especially in busy seasons. We have so many stressors. And more importantly, safety is just not always our top priority.

Last year, a study published in the Journal of Agromedicine showed a decline in the quality of Canadian media coverage of farm accidents between 2010 and 2017, with less detail given about the accidents and, more importantly, how they could have been prevented.

Furthermore, in recent years farmers’ mental health has really become a focus.

We have learned that farmers suffer from higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression and emotional exhaustion than other industries. At the same time, there is a deep-rooted resistance in our rural communities to talk about these issues. In fact, according to Do More Ag, 40 per cent of Canadian farmers reported that they would resist seeking help for mental health issues because of public perception.

These are alarming trends and ones that require our attention.

At AgSafe Alberta, our mission is to support a culture of safety on farms and ranches in the province through information, education and training.

This winter, we are rolling out several initiatives to help Alberta farmers keep safety top of mind this year.

Earlier this month we launched Take 11, a campaign to encourage farmers to take 11 seconds before starting a new task to note potential hazards and how they will control them. The FARMERS CARE acronym reflects the most dangerous situations on farms today.

We are also hosting a series of webinars in the coming months outlining everything farmers need to be mindful of these days as we head into another growing season, including current OHS regulations, COVID considerations and how to design a safety plan customized for your farm. Finally, we have a suite of resources available on our website and one of our farm safety advisers is always available to help you with your farm safety questions and concerns.

We urge you to join us in making 2021 a safe year for all farms across Alberta.

Jody Wacowich is the executive director of AgSafe Alberta. For more information on the webinars or to sign up, go to agsafeab.ca and click on the AgSafe Speaker Series link. The webinars will be recorded for later viewing.

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